History & Culture -- For an overview of pre-Hispanic cultures, pick up Michael D. Coe's Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs or Nigel Davies' Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. Coe's The Maya is probably the best general account of the Maya. For a survey of Mexico's history through modern times, A Short History of Mexico by J. Patrick McHenry is thorough yet concise.
John L. Stephens's two-volume Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán is not only one of the great books of archaeological discovery but a travel classic. Before his expeditions, beginning in 1841, the world knew little about the region and nothing about the Maya. Stephens's account of 44 Maya sites is still the most authoritative.
Ronald Wright's Stolen Continents, published in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage, recounts the story of the European conquest from the point of view of indigenous Americans -- Aztec, Maya, Inca, Cherokee, and Iroquois -- who had been largely left out of the history every child was taught until then.
Graham Greene's The Lawless Roads, covering the brutal religious oppression of the late 1930s, is a dyspeptic travelogue of Chiapas and Tabasco. This compelling look at what was then a remote region -- flawed though it is by the author's distaste for Mexico -- also was the basis for his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory.
For contemporary culture, start with Octavio Paz's classic, The Labyrinth of Solitude, still controversial because of some of Paz's cultural generalizations. Our Word Is Our Weapon, a collection of articulate, often poetic writings by Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, provides insight into Chiapas' armed revolt in the 1990s.
Lesley Byrd Simpson's Many Mexicos is a comprehensive cultural history; Distant Neighbor by Alan Riding is a classic of cultural insight.
Art & Architecture -- Art and Time in Mexico: From the Conquest to the Revolution by Elizabeth Wilder Weismann covers religious, public, and private architecture. Maya Art and Architecture by Mary Ellen Miller showcases the best of Maya artistic expression.
Nature -- A Naturalist's Mexico by Roland H. Wauer, is getting hard to find, but A Hiker's Guide to Mexico's Natural History by Jim Conrad is a good alternative. Peterson Field Guides: Mexican Birds by Roger Tory Peterson and Edward L. Chalif is predictably excellent. Les Beletsky's enlightened Southern Mexico is a richly illustrated, engagingly written field guide and ecotourism manual.
Literature -- Jorge Ibargüengoitia, one of Mexico's most famous modern writers, died in 1983 but remains popular in Mexico and is available in translation. His novels Estas Ruinas Que Ves (These Ruins You See) and The Dead Girls (a fictional account of a famous 1970s crime) display deft characterization and a sardonic view of Mexican life.
Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico's most esteemed authors, wrote only three slim books before his death in 1986. His second, Pedro Páramo, is Mexico's equivalent of Shakespearean tragedy and has never been out of print since its publication in 1955. The short novel of a son's search for his abusive, tyrannical father, is told in competing first- and third-person narration and had a major influence on the magical realism movement. It has been translated twice into English and been made into film several times; Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna are working on a new adaptation.
The earlier novels of Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's preeminent living writer, are easier to read than more recent works; try The Death of Artemio Cruz. Angeles Mastretta's delightful Arráncame la Vida (Tear Up My Life) is a well-written novel about a young woman's life in postrevolutionary Puebla. Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate (and the subsequent movie) covers roughly the same period through a lens of magical realism and helped to popularize Mexican food abroad.
Hasta No Verte Jesús Mío by Elena Poniatowska, and anything by Pulitzer winner Luis Alberto Urrea, offer hard looks at third-world realities.
Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter for Amores Perros, is a brilliant novelist, too. El Bufalo de la Noche, about a young man reeling from his best friend's suicide, is available in English. Retorno 201, a collection of stories set on the Mexico City street where Arriaga grew up, was published in 2005.
Golden Age & Classics -- During Mexico's "Golden Age of Cinema" in the 1940s, studios stopped trying to mimic Hollywood and started producing unabashedly Mexican black-and-white films whose stars are still cultural icons in Mexico. Mario Moreno, a.k.a. Cantinflas, was a comedic genius who personalized the el pelado archetype -- a poor, picaresque, slightly naughty character trading on his wits alone and getting nowhere. Mexican beauty Dolores del Río played the steamy Latin babe in Hollywood. Pedro Infante, the singing cowboy, embodied the ideal of Mexican manhood.
Luis Buñuel's dark Los Olvidados (1950) was the Spanish surrealist's third Mexican film, exploring the life of young hoodlums in Mexico City's slums.
The New Cinema -- After a long fallow period, a new generation of filmmakers emerged in the 1990s. The first big El Nuevo Cine Mexicano (The New Cinema) hit outside of Mexico was Like Water for Chocolate (1992), directed by Alfonso Arau, then author Laura Esquivel's husband. He continues to make films, mainly in Mexico. Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas (1999), by director Antonio Serrano, is an unflinching look at the battle of the sexes in Mexico City.
After Alfonso Cuarón's debut film, the mordant social satire Sólo con tu Pareja (1991), scored critical and commercial success in Mexico, he garnered international acclaim with his ironic Y Tu Mamá También (2001), which touches on class hypocrisy while following a pair of teenage boys on an impromptu road trip with a sexy older woman. Cuarón has since directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the science-fiction thriller Children of Men (2006), and other international productions. Gravity, a space thriller with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is due in 2012.
In Amores Perros (2000), Alejandro González Iñárritu (director of 21 Grams) presents a keen glimpse of contemporary Mexican society through three stories about different ways of life in Mexico City that converge at the scene of a horrific car accident. His Academy Award-nominated Babel (2006), another tour de force, features a Mexican border scene that is realistic, exhilarating, and frightening all at once. His Biutiful brought a best actor award for star Javier Bardem at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Guillermo del Toro's debut, the dark, atmospheric Cronos (1993), won critical acclaim in Mexico. Moving into the international arena, he has directed similarly moody films such as Hellboy (2004) and Oscar winner Pan's Labyrinth (2006).
Julie Taymor's Frida (2002), with Mexican actress Salma Hayek producing and starring, is an enchanting biopic about Frida Kahlo's life and work, from her devastating accident to relationships with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. The exquisite cinematography captures the magic realism evinced in Kahlo's work.
Director Robert Rodriguez's breakout film, El Mariachi (1992), is set in a small central Mexican town. Made on a shoestring budget, the somewhat cheesy action flick is at least highly entertaining. His Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) isn't as great, but it's fun to see scenes of San Miguel Allende. Ditto for San Luis Potosí in The Mexican (2001) with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. With Machete, his over-the-top 2011 action/gore/humor flick, his aim is clear: to make a Mexican Jean-Claude Van Damme out of star Danny Trejo.
Views from the Outside: Films Starring Mexico -- Elia Kazan's 1952 classic, Viva Zapata!, written by John Steinbeck, stars Marlon Brando as revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Orson Welles's 1958 film-noir Touch of Evil (preposterously billing Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics agent) looks at drugs and corruption in Tijuana -- still compelling, even though it feels sanitized compared with today's screaming headlines. The adaptation of Carlos Fuentes's novel The Old Gringo (1989), a love triangle set during the Mexican Revolution, was filmed with Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda, and a young Jimmy Smits in numerous locations in five Mexican states. HBO's 2003 flick, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself with Antonio Banderas, is the true story of how revolutionaries allowed Hollywood to film Pancho Villa in battle. Man on Fire (2004), with Denzel Washington as a bodyguard hired to protect a little girl, is full of great Mexico City scenes, though the plot is depressing and all too real. Dylan Verrechia's Tijuana Makes Me Happy (2005), focusing on Tijuana's humanity rather than its perceived sins, has won awards in Latin America and at U.S. film festivals. Stephen Soderbergh's Academy Award-winning Traffic (2000), with Benicio del Toro, has powerful scenes focusing on Tijuana's drug war, while the documentary Tijuana Remix (2002) unveils the city's unique and idiosyncratic culture.
Mel Gibson's controversial Apocalypto (2006) cast indigenous Maya to depict the Maya empire's waning days; the rainforests of Veracruz state stand in for the lush jungles that must have covered the Yucatán centuries ago. Mexico, most notably an uglified Campeche, stood in for 1950s Cuba in Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008), a two-part epic focusing first on the Cuban revolution and then on his attempt to bring revolution to Bolivia that won the Cannes best actor award for Benicio del Toro.
Marimba & Son -- Marimba music flourishes in much of southern and central Mexico but is considered traditional only in Chiapas and the port city of Veracruz, whose bands travel to play in such places as Oaxaca and Mexico City. You can hear marimba any night for free in Tuxtla Gutiérrez's Parque de la Marimba.
Son, a native art form from many parts of Mexico, employs a variety of stringed instruments. Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba" popularized one of the most famous forms, son jarocho, in the '50s. Often fast-paced, with lots of strumming and fancy string picking, it originated in southern Veracruz. Jarana, the Yucatán's principal dance music, is a form of son jarocho that adds woodwinds and a sensuous Caribbean beat. The dance was born as part of the haciendas' annual Vaquerías, or country fiestas, and are still performed every week in Mérida's central plaza and many smaller parks.
Danzón & Bolero -- These musical forms came from Cuba in the late 19th century and gained great popularity, especially in Veracruz and Mexico City. Danzón is orchestra music that combines Latin flavor with a stateliness uncommon in later Latin music.
The Yucatán had strong ties to Cuba, and its son yucateca probably influenced bolero and the related trova, or classical guitar trios. This soft, romantic, and often slightly melancholy music is a linchpin of Yucatecan tradition, and singers sometimes use Mayan lyrics. Mérida's free nightly cultural events include trova yucateca, and the city stages an annual trova festival.
Mariachi & Ranchera -- Mariachis, with their big sombreros, waist-length jackets, and tight pants, embody Mexican spirit. The music originated from Jalisco state's son, arranged for guitars, violins, string bass, and trumpets. Now heard across Mexico and much of the American Southwest, it is at its traditional best in Jalisco and its capital, Guadalajara. Mariachi is also common in the Yucatán, especially in cantinas and during national celebrations. Yucatecan trova music even has mariachi adaptations.
The national pride, individualism, and sentimentality expressed in mariachi's kin, ranchera, earns it favored status as drinking music. Many Mexicans know the songs of famous composer José Alfredo Jiménez by heart.
Rock en Español -- Mexican rock forged its identity in the 1980s and exploded during the 1990s with bands such as Los Jaguares and Molotov out of Mexico City and Maná, based in Guadalajara. Named for the 1920s cafe in the capital's Centro Histórico, Café Tacvba has been at it since 1989. Their music is influenced by indigenous Mexican music as much as folk, punk, bolero, and hip-hop. The fast-rising Yucatán a Go Go -- hailing, despite the name, from central Mexico -- fuses a bouncy pop beat to lyrics firmly rooted in cultural tradition. Latin alternative music, which was born as an alternative to slickly produced Latin pop exemplified by Ricky Martin or Paulina Rubio, has become a genre in itself. Practitioners such as Panda, División Minúscula, and Zoé have achieved not-so-alternative success.
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